Author Archives: larrycuban

About larrycuban

I am a former high school teacher and district superintendent who has researched school reform policies, the history of teaching, and classroom technologies for many years

What’s the Difference Between Engineering at a Tech Company Versus a School? (Sam Strasser)

This is an interview that Ranjani Sundaresan, a junior at Seattle University and intern at EdSurge over the summer, conducted with Strasser. This post appeared on EdSurge, September 16, 2017.

What’s it like for an engineer to dive into education?

Sam Strasser is Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Summit Public Schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. But he also has had a long career working as an engineer at companies including Microsoft and Facebook. At Facebook, he helped develop Summit’s personalized learning platform, which is now used in more than 100 schools throughout the U.S. Strasser spoke with the EdSurge Jobs team about how school looks from an engineer’s point of view.

EdSurge Jobs: So, give us a 60-second description of your career trajectory up until this point in your life.

Strasser: I started my career as a software engineer at Microsoft for a couple of years. I worked for a few edtech companies as a engineer and engineering manager and then as a contracted engineer. The contracting phase really helped me find the next thing that would be a good fit for me. Summit Public Schools was one of the organizations I worked for as a contract engineer.

As you may know, Facebook partnered with Summit to provide the engineering support for Summit’s personalized learning platform. I eventually moved over to Facebook, working as an engineer and then as a product manager. My most recent move has been back to Summit as the CIO.

What was that ’something’ that made you jump into education and edtech?

When I was working in the tech world, I didn’t feel my work was connected to the things I wanted to contribute to the world. It wasn’t fulfilling for me. Education is something that has interested me for a long time. In college, I wrote my senior essay on the intersection of technology and education. I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do in education, but I knew it mattered to me so I decided to pursue that path.

So, why did you join the particular edtech startups and companies that you did? What was the draw towards those particular ones?

I believed in the educators who were leading them. They have all been led by an educator or very deeply co-led by one. One of my fears when moving into education was that we, engineers, would see only engineering problems and lose sight of our users. Because of that, I always try to make sure that the loudest decision-making voice has had some real education experience.

That’s very interesting. As an engineer, which of your skills have been the most important in your career?

I would say the most important skills haven’t been related to any algorithms or coding or architecture, but learning how to apply an engineering-style thinking and problem-solution thinking, particularly to complex problems like education.

What skills have you had to develop on the job?

Working for and with a school is very different than working for a tech company. I’ve had to adjust and learn new skills working in this environment. Some of the differences are surface-level, like benefits and paid time off, but others are pretty deep, like collaboration and feedback style.

Here’s one example of these differences: A big part of teaching is reinforcing positive behaviors. By contrast, part of my [engineering] job is soliciting critical product feedback to make improvements. When I first started at Summit, I noticed that teachers were very good at finding positive things to give feedback on. This quality is great in the teaching context, but can be challenging when trying to get at a product’s flaws. I’ve learned on the job how to create safe places for educators to give more critical feedback and how to better glean insights from feedback that might not be as overtly critical as I was used to.

Having been in education and edtech for so long, what is the toughest part of having a career in this particular sector?

I think there is a funny disconnect in the industry. A lot my engineering friends say, “I really would love to find a way to contribute and use my engineering skills to help out schools.” And a lot of my teacher friends say, “If only I had some technological solution for X problem so that I could focus on the part of my job that I want to be doing.” There seems to be some kind of mismatch between edtech companies and end users.

Learning how to work with a school, understand its needs, build a product and build a business around it is not a clear path by any means. There are some really positive examples out there of companies that have done it. However, the hardest part of this industry is learning how to understand the needs of a school or an educator and then turning those insights into an actual solution to their problems.

Well, you’ve already answered this question a bit, which was: What advice do you have for folks who are interested in engineering in the education field? Is there anything you would like to build on?

I think by far my biggest advice is this: If you don’t have classroom experience and are building a product, it’s tempting to think you know exactly what you’re doing because we all went to school, and we think that we know what school is.

But, we don’t know what school is. And we definitely don’t know what teaching is, especially as engineers. So my advice is to over-correct for this and build empathy for actual teachers in actual classrooms—not the theoretical idea you have about what teaching should or could be or was for you. Because that almost certainly is not going to land with educators today.

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East Side Prep Not “Going to Scale” and Why (Part 2 1/2)

In the last post, I wrote about a private non-profit school located in East Palo Alto (CA), a predominatly Latino and African American city across the expressway from affluent Palo Alto. East Side Prep is a high school that by all conventional measures is a success. Such successful schools, dependent on private donors to underwrite student tuition and the overall cost of running a day and residential program, often get pressured to clone themselves elsewhere.

Yet for the 22 years since it was founded it has remained–and grown–where it is. No satellite schools. No franchisees. It did not scale up in the familiar manner that a Christo Rey–a chain of private Jesuit schools have. Nor has East Side Prep gone the way of charter school networks as KIPP, Aspire, Green Dot, and YES Prep.*

So I wondered why.

In the original post, I said:

I am not suggesting that ESP copy such franchising in going to scale. I have not discussed it with Chris and Helen at all. For all I know, they and their Board may well be following a non-scaling up approach. That is, a successful school hangs in—continues to improve it self and avoids cloning. ESP fills the need for better schooling in an area that lacks such successful schools, and leaves it at that. Opposite to scaling up is hanging in and not looking to replicate what one is already doing well.

My hunch is that Chris and Helen have been approached many times by donors and others to spread what they have done in East Palo Alto. Generous givers may want more ESPs. So why no clones of ESP? Why haven’t Chris and Helen journeyed forth and spread ESP seeds elsewhere?

I can only speculate but to create another ESP with its history in the neighborhood, its many moving parts in a complex program, a stable and experienced faculty, continuous neighborhood support, and enduring leadership is neither easy to duplicate nor worth doing since these leaders would not be able to continue their work at ESP as they have for over two decades. Hanging in as a strategy and continuing good work with teachers and students in an under-resourced neighborhood is surely seen as inefficient by those who tout scaling up. f it works here, let’s do it everywhere. There is, however, no one best way to school those who want to be the first in their families to go to college. East Side Prep is only one and very hard to reproduce in a different setting with different leaders.

Before I had written the post, I had contacted Chris Bischof, one of the school’s founders to ask why. He responded November 10, 2017 so I am updating the previous post with what he said about scaling up.

We have had several donors in the past ask us to “scale up” by either increasing our enrollment and/or starting similar schools in other communities. Our general response is that we still have so much work to do at our current site. As we always say, it’s definitely a work in progress and we’ve chosen to focus all of our efforts on continuing to improve the quality and rigor of our program each year. We have also “scaled up” over the years by expanding the scope of our program. I guess you can say that rather than adding more students per grade, we chose to take a more longitudinal approach by supporting students all the way through college and onto successful careers. We are committed to making sure that our students’ hard work at Eastside will pay off for them long-term. I’d be happy to talk with you more about this if you have any further questions.

____________________________________

*Readers have pointed out to me that in the San Francisco Bay area are highly touted charter schools serving a similar population that East Side Prep serves. Envision Schools and Leadership Public Schools both founded in 2002 have three schools in each of their networks. It seems that these two charter networks are equally as sensitive to the perils of “scaling up” after 15 years as is East Side Prep.

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Scaling Up: The Story of East Side Prep (Part 2)

East Side Prep is a private, non-profit school located in East Palo Alto (CA). Founded in 1996 by Chris Bischof and Helen Kim, Stanford University graduates, the school has aimed at serving low-income minority students who will be the first in their family to attend college. East Side Prep has grown from a class of eight ninth graders to a secondary school serving over 300 students including a residential component. Demographics capture the intent and reach of the school.*

 

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The cost is $19,000 for a day student or $29,000 for a residential student. No student or family pays that amount. Donors–individual (85%) and corporate (15%)–pay the full tuition for each student with each family contributing at least $250 a year. Also each family is expected to volunteer at least 20 hours a year at the school.**

The multi-faceted program includes a heavy academic load, arts and humanities offerings, after-school competitive sports, and much tutorial and remedial help including a full summer term (see here, here, here, and here)

Faculty 

With over 30 full- and part-time faculty, most of whom are veteran teachers who have taught at ESP for up to a decade or more, there is much stability in the staff. At one Open House I attended on October 19, 2017, six of these veteran teachers spoke of how they came to ESP and why they have stayed as long as they have and the closeness of the faculty in working together to solve problems.

Program

The curricular focus in all disciplines is on academic preparation for the rigors of college, and
emphasizes critical reading, expository writing, research methodology, and mathematical
problem solving. The academic course plan all students take meets the University of California
and California State University a-g admissions requirements, and all students complete
coursework that exceeds the requirements for UC/CSU freshman admissions.
Students are untracked with the exception of math and Spanish, for which tracking is based on
entering algebra preparation and native language designation. All students are required to take
four years of the following: English, including AP English Language in their junior year; laboratory
science, with either AP Physics, Advanced Chemistry, or Advanced Biology in their senior year;
mathematics, ending in AP Calculus (AB or BC), AP Statistics, or Pre-calculus/Statistics; and
Spanish with the exception of native speakers who finish their 3rd year in AP Spanish Literature
as juniors. Students take a year of World History, U.S. History, and a semester each of AP U.S.
Government and AP Microeconomics.
Students enroll in College Readiness courses in their 10th, 11th and 12th grade years for skill
development, test preparation, and senior college prep, a course in which seniors complete their
college applications and prepare to transition to college.
In the senior year, students also take Senior Research Institute (SRI), a research and writing based
course that culminates in a 25-page research paper and a 30-minute presentation of research….
In addition to computer science, Eastside offers a variety of electives including fitness,yearbook,
art and photography, drama, piano, band, and choral ensemble. Sports options include basketball,
soccer, volleyball, track and field, cross-country, weightlifting, and strength and conditioning.
A variety of student clubs, such as robotics, Student Council, and the community service club,
Interact, foster community building as they give students a chance to assume leadership roles on
campus. There is an emphasis and a connection in all of these activities to the mission of the
school and the importance of high standards

 

In addition, there is a Resource Program for students who need extra support–the school estimates 10-20 percent of students need such help. A faculty Advisory system began in 2001 that brings each teacher with a group of students together to meet regularly in each of the four years students will be at ESP including scheduled Advisory lunches between a student and his or her Advisor. (For video reports of teachers, students, and program, see here, here, and here)

There is much more that I can describe about the school’s residence program, the athletics, the ups-and-downs, yes even an outstanding school has problems that the administration, staff, and parents work on continuously and together. But I won’t. Readers can refer to above links for more information about the school from local sources and the school’s website.

Going to Scale

The fact of the matter is that this is an extraordinarily “successful” school by conventional measures. Donors have supported the school year in and out. Working class parents in East Palo Alto and nearby neighborhoods seek entry for their sons and daughters. ESP has graduated seniors who go on to college and earn a degree in numbers that most high school principals and faculties can only admire and respect.

This school has existed for 22 years. There is no other ESP in adjoining neighborhoods and other cities. It is one of a kind.

Yet other private non-profit schools aimed at a similar population have spread their work to other cities such as the Jesuit created Christo Rey that began in 1996 on the South Side of Chicago and since then a secondary school network network of 32 schools across 21 states and the District of Columbia. Combining a rigorous academic curriculum with students paid to work through a Corporate Work Study Program, donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have given large sums of money to spread the network. Each of these schools is locally owned and operated with a national office helping individual schools stay true to the model.

I am not suggesting that ESP copy such franchising in going to scale. I have not discussed it with Chris and Helen at all. For all I know, they and their Board may well be following a non-scaling up approach. That is, a successful school hangs in—continues to improve it self and avoids cloning. ESP fills the need for better schooling in an area that lacks such successful schools, and leaves it at that. Opposite to scaling up is hanging in and not looking to replicate what one is already doing well.

My hunch is that Chris and Helen have been approached many times by donors and others to spread what they have done in East Palo Alto. Generous givers may want more ESPs. So why no clones of ESP? Why haven’t Chris and Helen journeyed forth and spread ESP seeds elsewhere?

I can only speculate but to create another ESP with its history in the neighborhood, its many moving parts in a complex program, a stable and experienced faculty, continuous neighborhood support, and enduring leadership is neither easy to duplicate nor worth doing since these leaders would not be able to continue their work at ESP as they have for over two decades. Hanging in as a strategy and continuing good work with teachers and students in an under-resourced neighborhood is surely seen as inefficient by those who tout scaling up. f it works here, let’s do it everywhere. There is, however, no one best way to school those who want to be the first in their families to go to college. East Side Prep is only one and very hard to reproduce in a different setting with different leaders.

 

 

______________________________

*I have known both founders of ESP as students in a social studies curriculum and instruction course they took with Lee Swenson and me in the graduate Secondary Teacher Education Program at Stanford University in the early 1990s. I have visited the school multiple times, most recently in mid-October 2017.

**This data comes from East Side College Preparatory School, “Programs and Best Practices,” 2016-2017.

 

 

___________________

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Coaching a Math Teacher (Education Realist)

This post comes from the blog Education Realist. While I usually avoid postings from anonymous authors, this full time teacher who writes under the pseudonym of Education Realist is someone I have come to know and respect as a teacher and person. I have observed this teacher in math and social studies lessons; we have also met and had lunch discussing many issues in public schools. It appeared October 22, 2017

In 2011’s Personal Best, Atul Gawande recounts his desire to “up his game”, by hiring a retired surgeon who had once trained him, Robert Osteen, to act as a coach.  I often reread the article just for the best passage in an already great piece: when  Osteen gives Gawande feedback for the first time.

Prior to his own coaching experience, Gawande explores the difference between “coaching” and “teaching” in the teaching career itself. He sits in on a lesson and coaching session with  an 8th grade math teacher. One of the coaches was a history teacher, the other a math teacher who’d given up teaching to work at the district. While Gawande implies coaching is unusual, many school districts have coaching staffs, usually made up of history teachers and middle school math teachers, just like this one.

Everything that crackles and glows when Gawande describes Osteen’s observations falls with a thud in the teaching section. The lesson on simplifying radicals sounded fairly traditional, but seemed dull in the telling. The coaching feedback was similar to what I’ve experienced–banal platitudes. Socratic questioning. “What do you think you could do to make it better?” (Translated: I personally have no idea.) Not the same assertive advice Osteen gave Gawande, but carefully scripted prompts. Critzer seemed to like the “feedback”, such as it was, but I found the whole exchange extremely antiseptic. In no way were the two coaches “operating” (heh) on the same level as Osteen’s expert.

In 2011 I was a newbie. Now I’m edging towards a full decade of teaching and have now mentored  three teachers through induction and one student teacher. I’m better prepared to think about coaching, both as provider and recipient, and the stark differences in those two passages keep coming back to me.

My ed school supervisor , a full-metal discovery proponent, gave me one of the great learning experiences of my entire life. She never tried to convert me or push particular lesson approaches.  I can still remember the excitement I felt as she pushed me to think of new methods to achieve my goals, while I realized that regardless of teaching philosophy, teaching objectives remain resolutely the same: are the kids engaged? Are they learning, or parroting back what they think I want to hear? Am I using time effectively?  Osteen’s feedback reminded me of those conversations, and as I moved into a mentor role, she became my model.

A couple weeks ago, a district curriculum meeting ended early and I went back to school just in time for fourth block to observe my newest induction mentee.  This was an unscheduled observation, but she welcomed me into her pre-algebra class for a lesson on simplifying fractions prior to multiplication. Through the lesson, the students worked on this worksheet. The concepts involved are not dissimilar from the ones in Jennie Critzer’s lesson.

Here’s my feedback, delivered immediately after the bell rang.

“Okay, I’m going to split my feedback into three categories. First up are issues involving safety and management that you should take action on immediately. Everything subsequent is my opinion and advice  based on my teaching preferences as well as what I saw of your teaching style. I will try to separate objective from method. If you agree with the objective but not the method, then we’ll brainstorm other ideas. If you disagree with the objective, fine! Argue back. OK?” She agreed.

“For immediate action, make students put their skateboards under that back table, or in a corner completely away from foot traffic. The administration will support you in this in the unlikely event a student refuses to obey you, I’d also suggest making all the students put their backpacks completely under the desk. It’s like ski week around here, you nearly tripped twice. Now for the suggestions…”

“Wait. That’s the only mandatory change? My classroom management is good?”

“Yes. Kids were attentive and on task. But I want you to move about the room more, as you’ll see, and the way your kids strew their stuff around the floor, you’ll kill yourself.”

“I was worried about management because the students often seem…slow to respond.”

“We can talk more about your concerns before our formal observation so I can watch that closely. I’d like more enthusiasm, more interest, but that’s a subjective thing we’ll get into next. They listen to you and follow your requests. They’re trying to learn. You’ve got buy-in. You’re waiting for quiet. All good.”

“Phew. I’m relieved.”

“Now, some opinions. I’d like you to work more on your delivery and pacing.  You are anchored to the front of the class during your explanation time. Move about! Walk around the room. Own it. It’s your space.”

“I am never sure how to do that.”

“Practice. When you have a few sentences nailed down, just walk to the back by the door,  stand there for a minute or so, then move to another point, all while talking. Then go back up front. Do that until it feels comfortable. Then ask a question while away from the front. Then practice introducing a new topic while away, and so on.”

“I didn’t think of practicing. I thought it would come naturally.”

“I’m as big a  movie star teacher as they get, and what I just described is how I escaped the front-left cellblock.”

“OK.”

“Next up: you’re killing the flow of the lesson.  Here’s what you did today: give a brief description of method, work an example, assign two problems, go around the room looking at student work, come back up, work the problems. Then assign two more, go around the room looking at student work, come back up, work the problems. Lather, rinse, repeat. This precludes any concentrated work periods and it’s hurting your ability to help your top students. It’s also really boring.”

“Yes, many of my students have worked all the way through the handout. But I have to help the students who don’t get it right away and that takes time, right?”

“Sure.  So give a brief lecture with your own examples that illustrate two or three key concepts–NOT the ones on the worksheet. And while that lesson is going on, my advice is to insist that all students watch you. Right now, the strong students are completely ignoring your lesson to work the handout–and from what I can tell, occasionally getting things wrong.”

“Yes, they don’t know as much as they think they do in every case. But it’s good that they’re working, right? They’re interested?”

“Not if they aren’t paying attention to you. You are the diva. Attention must be paid.”

“But if they know it all…”

“Then they can finish it quickly after your lesson–as you say, they sometimes make mistakes you covered. So do an up front lesson of 15-20 minutes or less, depending on the topic. Then release them to work on the entire page or assignment. Let them work at their own pace. You walk around the room, giving them feedback. Don’t let the stronger kids move ahead in your packet. Have another handout ready that challenges them further You might have an answer sheet ready so kids can check their own work.”

She was taking notes. “How do I get these more challenging handouts?”

“Ask other teachers. Or I’ll show you how to build some. I know you’re using  someone else’s curriculum, but you can have additional challenges ready to keep your top kids humble. Math gets much harder. They need to be pushed.”

“So then I teach upfront and give them 30-45 minutes to do all the work, giving the kids who finish more work. Maybe a brief review at the end.”

“Bingo.”

“Got it. I’m going to try this.”

“Last thing on delivery: you’ve got a Promethean. Use it. It will free you from the document camera.”

“I don’t know how. I asked the tech guy for guidance and he said you were one of the most knowledgeable people on this brand.”

“Well, let’s do that next. Now, onto the much more difficult third topic: your curriculum. I could see you often backtracking from your own, authentic instruction method to return to the worksheet which forcefeeds one method: find the Greatest Common Factor or bust.  I could tell you didn’t like this approach, because you kept on saying ‘they want you to use GCF’, meaning the folks who developed the worksheet.”

“Yes, I kept forgetting to avoid my own method and  support the worksheet’s method.”

“Why?”

“Well, I have to use that worksheet.”

“Toots, you don’t have to use a thing. You’re the teacher. They can’t require you to teach it. I don’t dislike the curriculum, but that particular worksheet is flawed. As I walked round your room, I saw kids who just cancelled the first factor they saw, and then had an incomplete simplification. So 9/27 became 3/9 because the kid turned 9 into 3×3 and 27 into 9×3.”

“Yes, that’s what I saw, too. They didn’t realize it wasn’t fully simplified, because they weren’t realizing the need to find the GCF.”

“That’s because the method isn’t as important as the end result.  Who cares if they use that method? That’s what the one student said who challenged you, right? You were trying to push her to find the GCF, and she pushed back, saying ‘what difference does it make?’ and you were stuck because you agreed with her, but felt forced into this method.”

“God, that’s so right,” she groaned.

“But you weren’t giving them any plan B, any way to see if they’d achieved the goal. How much advanced math have you taught? Algebra 2, Trig, Precalc? None? You should observe some classes to see how essential factoring is. I talked to many of your students, and none have any real idea what the lesson’s purpose was. Why do we simplify at all? What was the difference between simplifying fractions and multiplying them?  What are factors? Why do we use factors?  I suggest returning to this tomorrow and confess that the student was correct, that in the case of simplifying fractions by eliminating common factors, there are many ways to get to the end result. Acknowledge you were trying to be a good sport and use the method in the handout, but it’s not the method you use.”

She wrote all this down. “And then I need to tell them how to know that they have fully simplified.”

“Exactly. Here’s what I saw as the two failures of the worksheet and your lesson: first, you didn’t tell them how they could test their results for completeness. Then, you didn’t tell them the reason for this activity. Namely, SIMPLIFY FIRST. When using numbers, it’s just an annoying few extra steps. But when you start working with binomials, failing to factor is disastrous for novices.”

“OK, but how can I circle back on this? Just tell them that I’m going to revisit this because of what I saw yesterday?”

“Yes! I recommend a simple explanation of  relatively prime. That’s the goal, right? The method doesn’t matter if that’s the end result.  And then, here’s a fun question that will startle your top kids. Given “two fourths”, why can we simplify by changing it to 2×1 over 2×2 and ‘canceling out’ the twos, but we can’t simplify by changing it to 1+1 over 1+3 and ‘cancel out’ the ones? Why don’t we tell them to simplify across fractiosn when adding? ”

“Wow. That’s a great question.”

“Yes. Then come up with a good, complicated fraction multiplication example and show them why all these things are true. Make them experience the truth by multiplying, say, 13/42 and 14/65. They might not retain all the information. But here’s what’s important, in my view: they’ll remember that the explanation made sense at the time. They’ll have faith. Furthermore, they’ll see you as an expert, not just someone who’s going through a packet that someone else built for her.”

“Ouch. But that’s how I feel.”

“Even when you’re going through someone else’s curriculum, you have to spend time thinking about the explanation you give, the examples you use. This isn’t a terrible curriculum, I like a lot of it. But fill in gaps as needed. Maybe try a graphic organizer to reinforce key issues.  Also, try mixing it up. Build your own activities that take them through the problems in a different way. Vary it up. You’ve got a good start. The kids trust you. You can push off in new directions.”

I then gave her a brief Promethean tutorial and told her I’d like to  see a lesson with some hands on activities or “cold starts” (activities or problems with no lecture first), if she’s interested in trying.

***************************************************************************

Mid-career teachers, like those in any other profession, are going to vary in their desire and interest in improving their game. Twitter and the blogosphere are filled with teachers who write about their practice.  Perusing social media is a much better form of  development than a district coach that isn’t experienced in working with the same population and subject. Conversations with motivated colleagues interested in exploring their practice, but hared to find the time or interested participants.

But  unlike other professions, we teachers are given ample, and often paid, opportunity to be coaches, and not the weak-tea district sorts. Induction and other new teacher programs give us a chance to push others to find their best.  I find these activities also lead me to review and improve my own practice.

If you’re tasked with helping beginning teachers, then really dig in. Challenge them. Encourage them to push back, but do more than ask a few questions. They’ll thank you later. Often, they’ll thank you right away.

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A Memoir’s Humble Tale of Teaching (James Forman Jr. and Arthur Evenchik)

I have not published a book review on my blog in the eight years I have written posts. Usually I read the book and mention it in a post.

This particular review of a novice teacher re-connecting with her students as a lawyer years after her brief stint in a Helena (ARK) alternative school is unusual in its candor about relationship with students, and its insights into the linkage between schooling and poverty. Inspiration, dedication, and humility–particularly the latter–seldom appear in such books written by former teachers.

I have not yet read Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick but am moved to do so after reading this review. Perhaps (or perhaps not) others might reach a similar conclusion.

The two authors of the review are former teachers in a Washington, D.C. charter school. James Forman Jr., who teaches at Yale Law School, is the author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.; Arthur Evenchik is the coordinator of the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University.

The review appeared October 20 on Atlantic Online

 

In books and films about failing schools attended by poor students of color, a suspiciously upbeat plotline has become all too familiar. A novice teacher (usually white) parachutes in, overcomes her students’ distrust and apathy, and sets them on the path to college and worldly success. Such narratives are every kind of awful. They make the heroic teacher the center of attention, relegating the students to secondary roles. They pretend that good intentions and determination have the magical power to transform young people’s lives, even in the most adverse circumstances. And they treat schools as isolated sites of injustice, never connecting educational disadvantage to other forms of inequality.

Michelle Kuo is a writer who resists the mythmaking impulse, with its clichés and wishful thinking. In her penetrating, haunting memoir, Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, she confronts all of the difficult questions that the teacher-as-savior genre claims to have answered, and especially this one: What difference can a teacher actually make?

Her credibility stems, in part, from her willingness to make her misjudgments and failings an integral part of the story she tells. At age 22, after graduating from Harvard, Kuo frustrates her immigrant parents’ ambitions for her by joining Teach For America. She takes a job at an alternative school in Helena, Arkansas, a blighted Mississippi Delta town populated by the descendants of black families who stayed behind during the Great Migration. By her own admission, her first year in the classroom is a disaster. She arrives hoping to teach African American literature to her eighth-grade students, but she blinds herself to the fact that most of them read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level, and so they are bored and frustrated by her lessons. She wants the students to know “their history,” by which she means the history of racist violence in the Delta. But she knows nothing of the trauma they have inherited; when she passes around a picture of a lynching, a boy named David brings her lesson to a halt by putting his head on his desk and muttering, “Nobody want to see that.” Instead of defying her school’s authoritarian culture, Kuo initially succumbs to it. Once, she recalls, “I tore up a student’s drawing, which I’d thought was a doodle, in order to jolt him into paying attention; he never forgave me, and I will regret it forever.”

Eventually, Kuo does begin to reach some of her students, but she gives them most of the credit for their progress as readers and writers. When they perform A Raisin in the Sun in class, she looks on, amazed, as they compete for the part of the matriarch Lena Younger—a character they admire because “she don’t play.” When she creates a classroom library and schedules silent-reading periods, she sees their adolescent restlessness give way to concentration. Before they relinquish the books they like, the students inscribe endorsements on the inside front covers. Until now, Kuo points out, they had never been handed a play or allowed time to read books of their choice. Just look, she seems to say, at what they make of these opportunities.

Her descriptions of individual students are unusually perceptive and moving. A boy named Tamir, asked to write a poem about himself, looks afraid “and peers at a classmate’s paper, as though this was the kind of assignment one could copy.” A girl named Kayla, who had been removed from the district’s regular high school for fighting, writes herself a letter that says, “I hope that when trouble come your way, you would just hold your head high and walk away with a smile on your face.” Patrick Browning, a student with a history of absenteeism, seems lost as he starts eighth grade, “as if he’d gotten on the school bus by accident.” He sits at the back of Kuo’s class, quiet and easily overlooked. But over the course of his eighth-grade year, he develops eclectic tastes in reading—everything from Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—and wins the schoolwide award for “Most Improved” student. When rainwater leaks through the classroom ceiling and destroys much of the book collection, it is Patrick who says to the other students, “Stop crying, y’all,” and fetches a bucket and mop.

After two years in the Delta, Kuo decides to leave her job and go to law school. (“With a law degree, you can multiply your impact,” a friend assures her. And her parents are thrilled.) But what might seem the natural ending to her story proves not to be an ending at all. Kuo returns to Helena three years later when she learns that Patrick has been arrested and charged with murder. She begins to visit the county jail where he is awaiting trial, bearing books and writing assignments. Her account of the seven months she spends as his tutor and fellow reader occupies the heart of the book, and it unfolds with all the starkness and immediacy of a two-character play. Scene by scene, it asks what brought them to this place and what can come of their time together.

The night Patrick was arrested, he had gone out looking for his younger sister, but he couldn’t find her. Then she arrived on the family porch with Marcus, a man she was dating. Marcus was drunk and belligerent, and when Patrick ordered him to leave, he started talking loudly and acting aggressively. Believing that Marcus was armed, Patrick picked up a knife he had left on the porch earlier in the day. He just wanted to scare Marcus, he says, but then they fought. He can’t remember the fight itself—just the sight of Marcus limping away and then falling to the sidewalk.

Patrick doesn’t realize that he has a plausible self-defense claim. A white man fending off an intruder on his property could invoke principles such as “stand your ground” or the “castle doctrine.” But Patrick is a black man in the Delta, and the prosecutor goes for a massive overcharge: first-degree murder. There is no question of bail: for sixteen months, Patrick awaits his trial in a jail so unsanitary and poorly managed that the state of Arkansas later shuts it down. And though his public defender eventually gets the charge against him reduced, they never meet until Patrick has his day in court.

The first time Kuo comes to the jail, Patrick blurts out, “Ms. Kuo, I didn’t mean to,” in what she calls “a tone of supplication.” But she soon realizes that he feels an intolerable sense of guilt. Patrick imagines that all the mistakes he has ever made led inexorably to the act he is now locked up for. He is haunted by a litany of wrongs he has no way to redress. “The problem,” Kuo writes, “was not that he wouldn’t confess but that he had confessed too much; it wasn’t far-fetched to think he might spend the rest of his life confessing.”

And yet maybe he needed his guilt; otherwise the death would have happened for no reason, a result of senseless collision—of mental states, physical impulses, and coincidences. He needed, for his own sense of meaning, to knit his failures into a story. “Cause and effect,” as he put it. The thread was that he messed up by ignoring God.

But I didn’t believe the story he told himself. I wanted to break it. For me to do that, we needed to forge a connection. But what did I have that I could share with him?

All I could think of was books. There were other things he liked—he’d tended lovingly to his go-cart and said once that he wanted to be a mechanic. I didn’t believe that reading was inherently superior to learning how to fix a car, or that reading makes a person better. But I did love books, and I hadn’t yet shared with him anything I myself loved. Had I known how to sing, I would have had us sing.

The bond they establish during their jailhouse sessions eases his torment, as Kuo hoped it would. Yet Patrick never ceases to hold himself responsible for Marcus’ death. After he takes a plea deal and is convicted of manslaughter, Kuo asks him, “Do you feel guilty?” and he replies, “I know I guilty.” It’s not the answer she wanted. But she comes to see that if she had undermined his sense of himself as the agent of his own actions, she would only have deepened his despair. No teacher can “break” a student’s story, his understanding of his life, and replace it with her own.

In other ways, too, the course of the relationship between Kuo and Patrick diverges from her original intention. When she discovers that his literacy skills have deteriorated, she promptly resumes her English-teacher role—marking every last error in his writing, assigning “extra homework to eliminate future mistakes.” This makes her sound overzealous, and sometimes she is. Yet Patrick, who at first dismisses the idea of homework (“Nah, it’s over with,” he tells her), makes greater progress than she had anticipated. “For me and perhaps for him,” she writes, “the task of making a sentence perfect had the effect of containment: It kept unbearable emotions at bay.”

Once they begin reading, Kuo is continually surprised by Patrick’s responses. When she gives him C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance, she thinks of it as a diversion: “a magical book, where the heroes were children, and children on the side of good.” But Patrick doesn’t see it that way. He is drawn to the character Edmund, who acts wrongfully but makes amends, and who grows stronger and wiser in the process. The story matters to Patrick because it allows him to envision the possibility that a person can change.

Similarly, Kuo is not prepared for the intensity of Patrick’s reaction to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. He reads it in a concrete stairwell at night, away from the other inmates, and persists even when he finds himself painfully identifying with the slaves Douglass describes. She half-expects him to deride the exuberance of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, but instead he writes lines imitating it, picturing landscapes and cities he has never seen. At such moments, Kuo recalls, “he appeared to me anew, as a person I was just beginning to know.”

For one of his final assignments, Patrick composes a letter inspired by a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. Addressed to his baby daughter, it describes a journey they might one day take together. The writing is so evocative that it humbles Kuo to read it. “I was searching for myself,” she admits, “for deposits of our conversations, memories he’d shared or words I taught him. But I was barely there. Each word felt like a tiny impulsive root, proof of a mysterious force that exceeded me.”

* * *

Back when she was a classroom teacher, Kuo engaged in a sort of triage. “There are just certain kids for whom you bring all your hope,” she writes, and Patrick was one of them. It makes sense, then, that news of his plight would have drawn her back to the Delta. But Kuo doesn’t allow us to forget that his tragedy is not the only one. She hears, soon after her return, that her former student Tamir is living on the streets in Little Rock, a crack addict begging for money. On a school-district report listing the students who dropped out of school in Helena the year after she left, she recognizes a long series of names along with Patrick’s. And when he finally appears in court, she sees many of those names again on the crowded docket of criminal cases:

I tried to count the number of black males of my sixty-something students over two years who had at some point gone to jail, and I ran out of fingers. The docket was the coda to the STUDENT DROPOUT REPORT—the county jail was where the dropouts landed. There were no jobs in Helena. They had no skills. Most had a disability or an emotional or mental disorder. Where else had I thought they would go?

 

Nothing Kuo has done for Patrick frees him from this dynamic. After the plea bargain, he is sent to an overcrowded prison. Two and a half years later, when he is paroled for good behavior, he returns to Helena with all the liabilities that come with having a violent felony on his record.

By then, Kuo is working as a public-interest lawyer in California. “I begin to think,” she confesses, “that those seven months didn’t really happen, that I had imagined the mystical silences we shared while Patrick wrote. I must have dreamed the poems we memorized, because I cannot remember the lines anymore. On the way to work, holding the metal bar of a subway, I wonder what it was all for and consider the idea that once you stop thinking about something, it disappears.”

But this is not her final word on the subject. If Kuo distrusts the romanticism of the teacher-as-savior narrative, she also resists the kind of fatalism that would have prevented her from becoming a teacher in the first place. She does wonder sometimes what would have happened had she never left Helena. Could she have kept Patrick from dropping out of school or confronting Marcus? Not likely, she says. Besides, she is wary of talking about Patrick “as if I think I could have saved him, as if I think I’m so important in his life. It’s not like that.” But then, exhibiting the kind of impassioned writing and hard-earned wisdom that set her book apart, she adds:

Or maybe it is, in the sense that the alternative, the rational thought, would be to say to myself, You can’t do that much, you’re not that important, there are so many forces in a person’s life, good and bad, who do you think you are? That’s what I said to make myself feel better after I left the Delta, and sometimes I still say it. But then what is a human for? A person must matter to another, it must mean something for two people to have passed time together, to have put work into each other and into becoming more fully themselves.

Maybe there are prospective readers who noticed Kuo’s memoir on a bookstore shelf, leafed through its pages, and put it back, saying to themselves, “I know this story already.” But in all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading With Patrick.

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Whatever Happened To MOOCs?

The splash began in 2012 when Massive Open Online Courses were touted as the coming revolution in higher education.

Wait, Larry, that was only five years ago, a mere blip in the life-cycle of an educational innovation.  Why are you including MOOCs when you have featured posts asking “whatever happened to” half-century old innovations such as Open Classrooms, Total Quality Management, and Behavioral Objectives?

With advances in digital technology and social media, the life cycle of a “disruptive innovation,” or a “revolutionary” program has so sped up that what used to take decades to stick  or slip away now occurs in the metaphorical blink of the eye. So whatever happened to MOOCs?

Where Did the Idea Originate?

One answer is that MOOCs are the next stage of what began as correspondence courses in the late 19th century for those Americans who wanted to expand their knowledge and found going to college was next to impossible. From home-delivered lessons to professors on television delivering lectures to online courses since the early aughts, MOOCs evolved from the DNA of correspondence courses.

Another answer is that in 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened up its list of courses for anyone to take online at no cost. Through Open Courseware, professors’ syllabi, assignments and videotaped lectures were made available to everyone with an Internet connection.

And a third answer is that in 2008, two Canadian professors George Seimens and Stephen Downes who offered a course through the University of Manitoba creating the first officially labeled MOOC called “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge” from a regular class they taught for 25 students to over 2200 off-campus adults and students for free who had Internet-connected computers.

All three answers suggest that the lineage of MOOCs has a history located in higher education seeking to educate students who lacked access to college and universities.

What erupted in 2012 was a lava flow of MOOCs from elite U.S. universities accompanied by hyperbolic language and promises for the future of higher education becoming open to anyone with a laptop. Since 2012, that hype cycle has dipped into the Trough of Disillusionment and only now edging upward on the Slope of Enlightment. Verbal restraint and tamed predictions of slow growth, smart adaptations, and commercial specialization have become the order of the day. And, fortunately, a humility about the spread and staying power of innovations initially hyped o steroids. All in five years.

What is a MOOC?

Taught by experts in the field, a Massive Open Online Course in higher education is accessible and free to anyone with an Internet connection. College students, those who work and are not registered in a college or university, and others who simply want information about a topic in which they are interested take courses. See a brief video made at the beginning of the MOOC innovation that explains what they are.

What Problems Did MOOCs Intend to Solve?

Limited accessibility to knowledge and skills offered in higher education. High cost of going to universities. MOOCs offer broader accessibility to students who because of geography, age, cost, and having a family could not take courses. Now anyone with a computer can learn what they wanted to learn. MOOCs are, as one reporter put it:  “Laptop U.”

Do MOOCs Work?

Depends upon what someone means by “work.” Since the usual measures of “success” in taking courses are attendance, grades, test scores, and similar outcomes, only one of these familiar measures has been applied to MOOCs: how many students completed the course?  Attrition has been very high. About ten percent of enrolled students in the early years of MOOCs did all of the assignments, communicated with course assistants, and took the final exam. Sorting out claims of “success” amid sky-high attrition rates has been an issue for both champions and skeptics of the innovation See here, here, here, and here)

What Happened to MOOCs?

They are still around but strikingly downsized and in the middle of being monetized and re-directed. The initial cheerleaders for MOOCs such as Sebastian Thrun, Daphne Koller, and Andrew Ng formed companies (e.g., Udacity, Coursera) that either stumbled badly, and subsequently altered their business plan. Many of these founders also departed for greener pastures (see here, here, and here).

MOOCs persist but as in the case of so many other hyped innovations using new technologies, a slimmer, more tempered, and corporate version exists in 2017 awarding certificates and micro-credentials (see here and here).

 

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What Are Success and Failure in Schooling? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I pointed out that judging “success” and “failure” in business and war is hard to do. Both are entangled with one another containing contradictions and complicated enough to provide neither  easy nor swift judgment. In this post, I look at providing health care in hospitals and schooling the young as further instances of a difficulty in determining “success” and “failure” even when relying on measures of performance.

The U.S. health care system is a model of inefficiency. It is by far the most expensive system in the world, consuming 18% of our gross domestic product. The results in terms of almost all quality measures, from life expectancy to childhood mortality, are in the lower half of the industrialized nations of the world.

Robert Pearl, M.D. 2015

 

This grim view of U.S. health care delivered by hospitals and physicians costs a lot yet delivers well below what most other nations give their citizens in health care. This framing of the problem leans decidedly toward picturing the nation’s hospitals and medical practices as failing to deliver what other nations do at lower cost. “Success” is not the first word that comes to mind in how the problem of health care is defined by those who agree with Dr. Pearl.

Yet when looking at success and failure with patients in hospitals it should be easy to figure out. As in business and the military, performance in meeting health care goals and objectives is everything.

Ranking systems using metrics that capture percentages of readmission and deaths, timely and effective care, complications that develop, use of imaging, patient satisfaction surveys, and other measures lead to judgments about high and low quality of hospital care.

Apart from ranking systems, there are the personal encounters that patients and their families have. Surgeons, for example, cut out cancers and oncologists administer chemotherapy to kill remaining cancer cells to achieve remission. Many patients return to better health than they had when the disease ravaged their body. Ditto for other medical clinicians who work in hospitals. Those are the successes.

But there are the failures. The operation was a success, but the patient died is an oft-told joke dating back to mid-19th century physicians. While old it does suggest difficulties of defining success and failure in hospitals.

For example, some diseases have no reliable treatments. For those children and aged who have such diseases, the prognosis is grim. And for many elderly patients who have multiple chronic conditions, surgery, chemotherapy, new treatments and drugs still fall short and patients die.

Then there are medical errors in diagnosis and treatment that kill patients in and out of hospitals. And do not forget that some hospital patients contract infections while there leading to longer stays and even death.

So success and failure are  uneasy concepts when it comes to doctors treating patients in hospitals.

Who runs hospitals has further complicated providing health care to Americans as Pearl’s opening quote suggests. With just over 6,000 hospitals in the U.S.—a number that has been decreasing over the past few decades—decisions about health care are increasingly made by non-doctors, mostly  corporate leaders.

Where a generation ago, medical staff made hospital decisions balancing quality health care and efficient operations, now more non-profit community hospitals are led by non-medically trained CEOs deeply committed to breaking even and having revenues that come from patients, private insurers, federal, state, and local governments exceed expenditures (about 20 percent of U.S. hospitals are for-profit and seek a positive return to their investors). The tension between reducing costs, increasing efficiencies, and hitting the quality measures of successful health care continue to be fraught with conflict. Thus, judgments of success and failure are seldom clear-cut.

SCHOOLING THE YOUNG

For the past half-century, the multiple goals that American schools are expected to achieve (e.g., engaged citizens, graduates prepared for the workplace, strong character, move up the social escalator) has been compressed into one salient measure: high scores on U.S. and international standardized tests. Schools that score high and have high percentages of high school graduates who move on to college are crowned “successes” and drape their schools with award banners. Schools with low scores, percentages of students graduating high school and even fewer attending college are deemed failures, subject to criticism, imposed changes, and even closure.

Yet schools tagged as “successes” have groups of children and youth (e.g., ethnic and racial minorities, low-income) who fail year after year to keep pace with their classmates. Failure within success?

Or consider the high test-scoring elementary school that is closed nonetheless because the school board decides it is costing too much to keep the low-enrollment school open. Enrollment trumped high academic performance. The “successful” school gets mothballed; children go to a neighboring school. Successful yet closed?*

Moreover, there are schools in the “failure” category that plug along year after year with declining test scores, high dropout rates, and few graduates attending college. These schools persist in their failure to perform even with severe criticism and reform piled upon reform. In spite of persistent failure, they continue to open their doors every September. Successful failures?

Furthermore, from time to time, schools once labeled “failure” turnaround and score high on standardized tests and receive awards. Failures then become successes?

These examples are puzzling to those who believe “success” and “failure” based on performance are easy both to identify in sustaining businesses, the military waging war, providing hospital-based health care, and schooling the young. Such puzzles arise when it comes to defining and capturing both “success” and “failure in institutions that serve the American public.

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  • In Arlington (VA), where I served as superintendent (1974-1981), I recommended to the School Board in 1975-1976 the closing of very small elementary schools (200 or less students) even though they scored well on state tests. The Board approved the recommendations.

 

 

 

 

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